The Art of Rashid Johnson: an Effective Delivery System and Tool for Change
“Capsule is a work born from a series of gridded sculptures I’ve been making over the last seven years. These sculptures attempt to capture and organize many of my ideas and concerns. Like a brain, they are filled with conflicting thoughts and concepts. This work is meant to avoid didacticism and allow for different opportunities for the audience to engage and unpack. The title Capsule helps to illustrate the attempt of this work to hold time. It is meant to be a place to gather, perform and reflect. Its role in the permanent collection of the Museum further satisfies the need for this work to be taken care of. I couldn’t be more excited to watch Capsule grow.” Rashid Johnson
Commissioned in 2020, Rashid Johnson’s Capsule is part of the National Gallery of Canada’s Contemporary Art Projects initiative. Over the past eight months, the American artist and I have been working on bringing his new sculpture to life in the Gallery’s main entrance. As the project’s curator, I thought I knew the piece inside and out – but I was wrong. As the work came together, cube by cube and plant by plant, I was amazed by its strong impact, an impact that continued to evolve over the weeks of installation. As I spend more time with the work and interact with it, I discover something new and continue to make different connections. I have a renewed understanding of the artist’s metaphor of Capsule functioning as a brain, which makes me reflect upon how we acquire knowledge from objects that surround us. It is enlightening to watch how visitors encounter, get immersed in, and inhabit the work. And I look forward to seeing how the installation will further transform when musicians and special guests perform on its elevated central platform.
Rashid Johnson is recognized as a major voice of his generation. His work investigates themes of anxiety and escapism through poignant meditations on race and class. After studying photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Johnson’s practice quickly expanded to embrace a wide range of media – including sculpture, painting, drawing, filmmaking, performance and installation. Much of the autobiographical quality of his work stems from memories of images and products, as well as intellectual, musical and literary sources that surrounded him during his upbringing in the Chicago suburb of Evanston.
Johnson’s mother was a poet and scholar of African history, who taught at Northwestern University and Loyola University Chicago. She instilled in her son a profound respect for history and literature. In his works, Johnson puts familiar materials and references in dialogue with Western art history, and more specifically modern art, in order both to challenge and communicate across cultural boundaries.
In 2014, Johnson created and exhibited his first large steel-cube sculpture Plateaus, titled after the 1987 philosophical treatise A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, which proposes a process for thinking and writing based on the idea of "nomadic" thoughts. The authors use the concept of the rhizome – an underground tuber-like root system – to describe the connection between the most similar and disparate objects, places and people. They use it to oppose a system of hierarchical thoughts or linear history, which they describe as having a tree-like structure. Several copies of this book are integrated in Capsule.
Inspired by the book, Johnson’s installation embodies ideas about ways knowledge can proliferate and grow in similar ways to the meandering rhizomatic roots of certain plants. The artist brings together a variety of materials, such as tropical plants, books, shea butter, ceramics and television monitors, to inhabit the enlarged modular grid structure, rendered in steel. Johnson has continued to elaborate this form and concept, for which he is best known, in ever more complicated and nuanced ways.
At the Gallery, Capsule responds to Moshe Safdie’s postmodern architecture and directly interacts with the entrance’s four concrete columns. There it functions as a living organism set in the Museum’s main entrance-cum-greenhouse. What does it mean to bring living plants into the Gallery? How is the architecture transformed by this intervention? Through the vegetation we are reminded that the installation is alive and growing, requiring ongoing care and attention. Introducing the living into a museum invites empathy, as well as questions around what defines life, and what differentiates the living from the non-living, the sentient from the non-sentient.
In Capsule, Johnson has devised a pathway through the interior of the monumental installation to offer visitors unexpected vantage points from the work’s inner sanctum. As such, the piece can act as a retreat similarly to a cocoon, set within the larger structure of the Gallery itself. Visitors are encapsulated by Capsule, which is itself encapsulated by the Gallery.
The artist further complicates his installation by embedding loaded objects to occupy the minimalist form, which is reminiscent of enlarged versions of American artist Sol LeWitt’s white open cubes. The tropical plants are housed in hand-built ceramic pots made and decorated by the artist with recurrent imagery from his paintings, such as the expressive figures from his Anxious Men series. These are mixed in with pots that were found. The tropical plants originally come from hot climates and were brought to remote locations like Canada, where they are mainly kept in temperature-controlled indoor environments. The use of plants can be understood in relation to the artist’s interest in escapism, and his relationship to images of foreign places that were around him while he was growing up.
Other materials include fibreglas sculptures and blocks of shea butter, an African-sourced balm and one of the artist’s signature materials that was also a fixture in his childhood home. The stacked books displayed on shelves with titles such as Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois and The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold W. Cruse, among others, examine tensions and experiences related to issues of race and class. Brought together, these materials act as cultural signifiers that embody the artist’s reflections and concerns.
Also integrated within the gridded structure are four videos produced by Johnson over the course of the last decade. The videos are shown on older broadcast monitors. Each work showcases Black men executing choreographed movements in a landscape – yoga in a forested park in Black Yoga (2010); a mix of yoga poses and martial arts performed near a body of water in The New Black Yoga (2011); a lone dancer in the desert near Marfa, Texas in Samuel in Space (2013); and finally two dancers in The Hikers (2019) filmed on a hiking trail in Aspen. Their accompanying soundtracks, inspired by improvised jazz, mix together when one circulates around the work. The videos critically explore and reimagine how black male bodies can inhabit different types of spaces, including a museum.
The work serves as an encyclopedia or archaeological dig with clues for viewers to examine, uncover and decode. The artist has spoken about his interest in creativity and how we make meaning. Speaking to art writer Dodie Kazanjian in 2019, Johnson explained: “I’ve always thought about connecting plants from different places and putting them together in unexpected ways. … It was explained to me once that creativity is best thought of as a person who is willing to connect disconnected things. Artists are not looking for the logical solution, or the most tasteful or pragmatic solution. We’re often looking for the disparate solution, the disconnected, desperate, unhealthy, unthoughtful solution that we can bring into the world and maybe it changes how we think.”
As a brain, Capsule connects distinct objects and contradictory concepts, and distributes information to those who engage with it. Johnson considers art to be an effective delivery system that can, through the intentional amplification of voices, be a tool for change. Capsule intervenes in the Gallery’s spaces and challenges the institution and its collecting history in provocative ways. Situated within an art-historical discourse, particularly that of modern and contemporary art, the installation is infused with Johnson’s own personal references and individualistic voice. As such, it can be understood as an unusual self-portrait of the artist himself.
Rashid Johnson's installation Capsule is on view in the main entrance of the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.